Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Make a law, we’ll find a way around it

Posted on Nov. 26, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.

Steve Chapman

Editor’s Note: Steve Chapman is on vacation. The following column was originally published in August 2009.

Wisconsin calls itself America’s Dairyland, and anyone who travels there soon learns the unofficial state motto: “You want cheese on that?” In the old days, it tried to discourage the use of nondairy spreads. You could buy margarine, which is naturally white, and you could buy yellow food coloring. But you could not buy margarine that contained yellow food coloring.

If that sounds like a sensible policy, you will have no trouble with a campaign to stamp out beverages that contain both caffeine and alcohol. Some people like a combination of the two ingredients, in the form of bourbon and Coke, whiskey and coffee, or NoDoz with a beer chaser. But professional paternalists think the government should stop beverage-makers from offering a product that, shockingly, satisfies both demands at once.

This may be hard to believe, but it’s true. Recently, the attorneys general of Maine, Maryland and Connecticut wrote the Federal Trade Commission, arguing that alcoholic energy drinks “are unsafe products that pose serious health and safety risks to consumers, particularly youth, and should be removed from the marketplace.”

Left unmentioned was that alcohol all by itself qualifies as an unsafe product in that its misuse can cause illness, death and waking up next to people you don’t recognize. So far, at least, these officials are not pushing for the return of Prohibition.

Earlier, some attorneys general had coerced Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors to stop making caffeinated alcoholic beverages. When other companies stepped in to satisfy the drinking public, the AGs went after them. The Food and Drug Administration is examining whether it also needs to act.

As a matter of logic, this approach is the equivalent of trying to prevent obesity by telling restaurants they may not offer a cheeseburger-and-fries entree, forcing diners to order the two foods separately. It would not have much effect on eating habits. Like Brad and Angelina, or beaches and bikinis, some pairings are just inevitable.

Wisconsin, by the way, utterly failed in its efforts to halt the use of margarine within its borders and to prevent the general rise of products that don’t require a cow.

Today cheeseheads can even buy Cool Whip and soymilk.

The lesson is that there is no point in passing laws at war with human nature. If people want to employ caffeine to keep them from dozing off at the bar or ethanol to calm Starbucks-induced jitters, they will find a way to do it. Lately, college kids have devised their own 21st-century version of Irish coffee by mixing Red Bull with vodka. Or they can buy pre-mixed concoctions with names like Vicious Vodka and Liquid Charge.

Scaremongers think these latter beverages promote alcohol abuse among young people, presumably by letting drunks stay conscious long enough to get even drunker. But if putting caffeine and alcohol in one convenient container generates wild excess, you would expect binge drinking among college students to be soaring. In fact, it hasn’t budged since 1993.

Critics claim the mixture vastly increases the dangers of youthful boozing, citing a Wake Forest University study published last year. Researchers found that students who downed drinks with both caffeine and alcohol were more likely than other student drinkers to suffer injuries, to ride with drunken drivers and to take sexual advantage of others.

Those findings are a flimsy excuse to stamp out pre-mixed cocktails. The study was not limited to those drinks, after all. Students paired caffeine and alcohol before the invention of Liquid Charge and would continue to do so if it ceased to exist.

Nor did the study demonstrate that this type of drinking actually causes the bad effects. Just as plausible is that students prone to do reckless things are more likely than their peers to knock back Jager bombs. Or, as the study itself acknowledged, “sensation-seeking individuals may be drawn to energy drinks, heavy alcohol consumption and risky behaviors.”

Take away this type of product, and maybe those consumers would switch to chocolate milk. But probably they’ll just find another way to get the buzz they want.

Instead of declaring war on Vicious Vodka, maybe disapproving government officials ought to try kicking back with an ice-cold glass of the stuff. With its ingredients, it might help them do a couple of useful things: 1) relax, and 2) wake up.

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune. Contact him at schapman@tribune.com.